When stories of stolen Tlingit objects at the Yale Peabody Natural History Museum hit the press this week, museum officials came under fire. Yale was not alone in having these kinds of items in their collection. In 1899, the Harriman Expedition, loaded with scientists, artists, and collectors ransacked an Alaskan Tlingit village, abandoned following a small pox epidemic. They brought the items back and distributed them to museums all over the country.
On Tuesday, April 15, Yale students and experts gathered for a panel discussion on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Three speakers presented the challenges tribes face when seeking repatriation of remains and sacred objects, and in Yale’s case, that includes the two Tlingit items, a carved wooden bear and a bird.
“The expedition took totem poles that ended up in different institutions,” said Chuck Smythe, anthropologist and director of the History and Culture Department at Sealaska Heritage Institute.
“Most of those items were returned 13 years ago, during ‘Harriman Revisited,’” Smythe said. “Some did it under NAGPRA and some under the policy of returning items unethically acquired.” Smythe said that when everyone else was returning the Harriman items, Yale did not. “Thirteen years later, they still have not repatriated them,” he said.
According to multiple sources, work has been done over the years to return the objects. Those involved with the panel said they had been in touch with the tribes.
According to an article in the Alaska Dispatch, the museum recently sent a letter to support the tribal group’s effort to acquire a grant that would help cover costs for elders and tribal representatives to travel to the Yale museum, where they can help determine which of the 230 items should fall under a formal request.
One of the presenters, Yale junior Ashley Dalton, wrote her research paper on the Tlingit items. When her research surfaced in local and Alaskan press, it caused a small uproar on campus. Dalton did not have access to the documents between the museum and tribes, as it is an ongoing case.
“The entire episode has brought out the problems with NAGPRA,” Dalton said, “The Act places inordinate responsibility on tribes to ask for items to be repatriated. It doesn’t work like that. If someone steals something from you, you are supposed to give it back—not wait until they ask for it. Especially when you are dealing with such sensitive cultural objects that were taken, often-times in tragic ways.”
The discussion of the items, housed in the Hall of Native Americans in the Peabody Museum, also brought Yale’s display of Indigenous Peoples under fire for grouping them with dinosaurs and animals, with no mention of indigenous people today. One viewer, 11-year-old Mason Gowell, admired the exhibit. He said, “I like the masks, and the wood carvings are really nice. The whole museum is beautiful.”
When Gowell was asked if he thought the people represented in the displays are still alive and practicing their ceremonies, Gowell said, “It would surprise me if they lived today. They don’t, so it would surprise me if they did.”
Richard Kissel, director of Public Programs at the museum, defended the exhibit. “Things have changed in the last 10 years. When our display was done, it was before my time; but we had Native American consultants, and that was ahead of most natural history museums.” He added that Yale has not had the funding to revamp the exhibit, and if they did, “That would be on the table.”
Kissel also said that the exhibits are a reflection of Yale students and scientist’s research. “We are a fair-sized museum and the square footage is so limited. In other museums you might see an African exhibit, or a Polynesian exhibit. That is just based on the collection. We are not intentionally being selective; it is a picture of the broader research.”
The Yale museum houses a Neanderthal exhibit, which Kissell said were European caucasians. “If we are lacking a European collection, it’s because it has not been a recent topic of research or in the collections of the museum’s curators.”
Ned Blackhawk, Western Shoshone, professor of history and American studies at Yale, said the panel event brought out “a whole range of things that came together. It was more than any one of us anticipated or expected.”
“I do think the Peabody has not had the required resources to follow the contemporary museum-ology. I look forward to the Peabody becoming more contemporary,” Blackhawk said.
Yale has long been suspected of harboring Geronimo’s skull for use in ceremonies in the Skull and Bones secret society, however Native students believe that Yale can be an excellent place for their own research. Vine Deloria, Jr., Leslie Marmon Silko, and N. Scott Momaday have papers and manuscripts in the Beineke Library.
Yale has been striving to be a welcome place for Native Americans. In the fall of 2013, the university opened the Native American Cultural Center, and Blackhawk believes that of all Ivy League schools except Dartmouth, Yale has the highest percentage of Native American students.
This article was modified on April 28, 2014. The original version incorrectly attributed quotes made by Erin Gredell to Christina Rose, who was not interviewed for this piece.